Organized crime is when a group of three or more people commit crimes to make money. Such crimes include gambling; prostitution; pornography; drug trafficking; insurance and construction fraud; illegal bankruptcy; motor vehicle theft; computer crime; and counterfeiting. The widespread nature of organized crime first came to light in the 1960s. Some criminal groups are based on ethnicity. Others are formed within certain industries. New laws were made in the early 2000s to address organized crime in Canada.
This article is a plain-language summary of organized crime in Canada. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry: Organized Crime in Canada.
Widespread and Structured
Just about every major ethnic group in North America has been involved in organized crime. The Italian crime group known as the Mafia or “the Mob” is the best known.
For a long time, it was thought that organized crime was simple and not very structured. Several key factors changed this. The first was the US Senate’s “Valachi hearings” in 1963. They were named after the chief witness, Mafia member Joe Valachi. Then, in the 1970s, police used wiretaps to record Mafia leaders talking about their business. The US Witness Protection Program also helped Mafia members co-operate with the police.
In the 1970s, organized crime in Canada first became publicly known. This was thanks to various court cases; the report of the 1974 Waisberg Commission in Ontario; and a series of mob killings in Montreal.
Types of Crime and Revenue
In 1984, organized crime was making about $20 billion a year in Canada. Revenue came from pornography; prostitution; bookmaking; gaming houses; illegal lotteries and gambling; as well as loan sharking and extortion. Other sources included white-collar crime (e.g., insurance fraud, illegal bankruptcy); arson; bank robbery; motor vehicle theft; computer crime; and counterfeiting. All of these combined brought in about $10 billion. Drugs brought in another $10 billion.
Organized crime groups would find it hard to exist without two things: the corruption of public officials; and the “laundering” of money. An easy way to launder money is with things that involve a constant flow of cash. For example: slot machines and gambling. Say the owner of a casino takes in $100,000 in real revenue. He can add $900,000 earned through crime and claim to have taken in $1 million. It is almost impossible to prove that illegal cash was added. Local coin laundries are also a common way to launder money.
The Mafia is the best-known organized crime group. The Mafia was brought to North America by a small group of Italian immigrants. They were mostly from Sicily and Calabria. The original group in Sicily was known as Cosa Nostra. That term is now applied to the leading Mafia “families.”
Italian crime families have been active in Canada since the early 1900s. They are located mainly in the major cities. But Mafia members tend to go where wealth is. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some moved to BC and Alberta.
The Quebec crime probe report of 1976 revealed the structure of the Montreal Mafia. Since the mid-1980s, Montreal has had one major crime family. It was led by the Sicilian-born Nick Rizzuto. His son Vito then took over. Another family was run by Frank Cotroni until his death in 2004. The Cotronis were a key branch of the powerful New York Mafia family of Joe Bonanno.
There were serious conflicts within the Montreal Mafia. This led to the deaths of Cotroni associate Paulo Violi and his brothers in the late 1970s. After Vic Cotroni’s death in 1984, Nick and later Vito Rizzuto took over. Vito died of natural causes in 2013 at the age of 67. There is no clear leader of the family now. Many senior Rizzuto members have been killed, died or are in jail.
From 2011 to 2015, the Charbonneau Commission investigated Quebec’s construction industry. This brought heat to the Rizzuto family. The hearings on TV included videos and wiretaps of Rizzuto family members. They showed Nick Rizzuto taking money from construction bosses and union leaders.
Until the mid-1980s, there were at least four major Mafia-style groups in Toronto. Two of them were named as members of the Mafia during the Valachi hearings. These two were run by Paul Volpe and Johnny “Pops” Papalia. After the murder of Volpe in November 1983, his groups mostly vanished. The same is true for Papalia. He was murdered by a rival Mafia family in 1997.
Today, there are some Calabrian groups in Toronto and Hamilton. There is no one godfather in Toronto. But there is a ruling commission in Italy. Family leaders in Toronto consult with this commission.
Motorcycle gangs have had a major presence in organized crime since the 1970s. Gangs include the Hells Angels, the Rock Machine, the Outlaws, Satan’s Choice and others. They are major suppliers of illegal drugs. They are also involved in prostitution and contract killing. It is common for them to work with other crime groups. The Hells Angels are the biggest outlaw biker gang in Canada.
With biker gangs comes violence and murder. A major biker war in Quebec led to the death of more than 160 people. There were many innocent bystanders. In 1995, Daniel Desrochers, an 11-year-old Montreal boy, was killed by a bomb. In 2000, journalist Michel Auger was shot six times in the back. The Hells Angels had taken out a contract on his life.
New Crime Laws
The Quebec biker war caused an outcry from the public and the media. This led the federal Parliament to enact stronger laws. These laws targeted the gangs’ wealth. They also allowed individuals to be charged with membership in an organized crime group.
By 2006, the new laws were used to prosecute members of the Rizzuto Mafia family. These included “soldiers,” senior members, and even old Nick Rizzuto. The onetime godfather was still active in crime in his 80s. Rizzuto was released from prison early due to old age. The 86-year-old was then killed by a sniper in his Montreal-area home in 2010.
The new laws also hit the Hells Angels hard. Hells Angel boss Maurice “Mom” Boucher was sentenced to life in prison for his role in several murders. He died of throat cancer in prison in 2022. The Hells Angels still exist. They are still a major presence in Quebec and BC. They are helped by puppet gangs who work for them.
Asian Crime Groups
Chinese crime gangs have been in BC for more than 100 years. Shue Moy, the famed “King of the Gamblers,” was a powerful crime figure in the 1920s. In 1928, a special inquiry in Vancouver looked into gambling rackets, opium dens and prostitution houses. It was found that corruption reached the highest levels in Vancouver.
Chinese and Vietnamese crime groups have become more common in Vancouver and Toronto in the past 40 years. They are involved in protection and extortion rackets. They run massage parlours as fronts for prostitution. They grow marijuana and produce and export speed drugs. Some groups are tied to Hong Kong triads and import heroin. Triads are the Chinese version of the Mafia.
First Nations crime gangs have long been in Canada. One example is the Manitoba Warriors. It works in the Winnipeg area. In 2014, Winnipeg police arrested 57 men and women aged 17 to 51. They allegedly had ties to what police called the “the city’s most powerful street gang.”
Jamaicans make up strong crime gangs in the Greater Toronto Area. These include the Malvern Crew and the Galloway Boys. In recent decades, these gangs have had shoot-outs in Toronto streets and malls. Many innocent people have been killed.
In Montreal, Haitian gangs rule the sale of drugs on the street. Gang members have also been involved in violent killings. In 2010, there was a shootout at a boutique in Old Montreal owned by Ducarme Joseph. He was a long-time, well-known Haitian gang leader. He was shot to death in August 2014.
Multi-ethnic drug gangs killed their way into a large piece of the drug business in BC. The best-known of these gangs was led by the three Bacon brothers. The Bacon crew killed many innocent people in a bloody turf war. Eldest brother Jonathan Bacon was shot and killed by hit men from a rival gang in 2011.
The so-called United Nations (UN) gang in BC is another example of a multi-ethnic crime gang. Colombian cartels are also active in Toronto and Montreal. And Russian and East European crime groups are active in major cities.